Monday Writing Motivation: Drama lives between the now and the then

 In How to write a book, Monday Motivation

Today, class, we’re going to return to some of the absolute fundamentals of drama. And like all my lessons, this one is so simple as, I’m sure, to seem trite. But bear with me during this Monday Writing Motivation: Drama lives between the now and the then.

Drama is interested in movement, not in stasis. When we consider a character – a historical character, perhaps, or a character who exists for the moment only in our minds – we think of a fully formed person.  That person might be a diffident bookkeeper, a flamboyant courtesan, or someone just like you. They exist at the moment, with all their frailties and flaws, all their strengths and accomplishments. Their CV is right up to date.

That’s how we think of people.

But when we think dramatically, we introduce the dimension of time into the equation. We think, here is a diffident bookkeeper – but what might happen to effect a transformation in the grey creature? What hidden resources might he possess that circumstance could help him access?

Monday Writing Motivation: Drama lives between the now and the then

Or: here is a flamboyant courtesan. But we know that deep beneath the gaudy make-up, the flounces and the furbelows lies a yearning for a simple country life. Then we ask, what might help her achieve that secret ambition – and what might stand in her way?

Or put it another way:

Horatio Nelson died a hero – or at least, met a heroic death (the distinction is interesting) – but we’re less interested in that snapshot of him at his tragic end than we are in his journey to that moment. We’re interested in how a young midshipman overcame his fear of water – or his chronic sea sickness – or the antagonists any talented naval officer must face on his climb up the ladder of promotions.

The journey is the thing.

Dramatic tension is created between the present moment and some anticipated moment. In order to wrest as much dramatic value from that movement, you need to establish your character in this moment of stasis. It’s a moment either of resignation (your character is a spinster of 34, and the year is 1883); of happiness (it’s 1927, your character is a sheriff in Wyoming, and after a long and arduous chase, he’s, at last, brought the state’s most notorious stock thief to face justice), or of pain (it’s 2023, your character has been found guilty of murdering his wife, and is awaiting sentencing by a judge known to be merciless).

That’s the static snapshot of a character.

Now you have to create the expectation of something different in the future.

Your spinster is catapulted into an entirely fresh environment: she travels to Australia at the request of a distant relative who needs a housekeeper to take over the duties of a wife. We wonder: what will become of her? We wonder: how will this naïve, slightly bitter woman fare in the outback? The tension between the initial snapshot and the unknown future creates the suspense that makes the story work.

So powerful is our need for drama, that when all we are presented with is a snapshot – the smiling bride, the happy hunter – we search the picture for signs that all is not well. That in the bride lurks doubt at the wisdom of her choice; that in the heart of the hunter lies a seed of guilt, and terror. That in the snapshot there are signs of a drama to come.

Stasis – conflict – transformation.

It’s a very simple equation, but it rules us all.

Happy writing,


If you’re looking for free writing resources, consider downloading this “free story cheat sheet.” 

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